There is a vast gulf between how people tend to think of “tourism,” an agreeable pursuit for themselves and a great benefit to their local economy, and how people tend to think of other tourists, as interlopers, beholden to oafish appetites for packaged experience. Those of us who travel professionally, with a view to record for those at home our encounters on the road, try to bridge that perceptual divide. This can be uncomfortable. Tourists in bad faith, we are paid to elevate our naïve consumption (of city, museum, vista, ruin, breakfast) to the level of a vocation. The internal anxiety that this contradiction inspires in us often gets displaced, in an amusing way, onto others on the same circuit. Professional travelers like nothing better than the opportunity to point out the crumminess of other professional travelers.
The classic formulation is the opening salvo of the anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss’s 1955 “Tristes Tropiques”: “Travel and travellers are two things I loathe — and yet here I am, all set to tell the story of my expeditions.” It has been 15 years, he continues, since he left the remote interior of Brazil, but the prospect of this book has been a source of shame. All he wants to offer is a humble contribution to the anthropological record, “an unpublished myth, a new marriage rule, or a complete list of names of clans.” But those delicacies of knowledge are so rare, the tribulations of their collection so great, that it has proved almost impossible to separate the wheat of anthropology from the chaff of adventure: “insipid details, incidents of no significance.” It is with great hesitation, then, that he takes up his pen “in order to rake over memory’s trash-cans.” He parodies a typical travel-book sentence of his day: “And yet that sort of book enjoys a great, and, to me, inexplicable popularity. Amazonia, Africa, and Tibet have invaded all our bookstalls.”